Which sub-.500 team has the best chance to win the World Series? Plus All-Star rosters, international free agent signings, power rankings and much more.

A baseball factoid recently caught my eye. On its surface, this random bit of information is the kind of thing that usually finds its way to the “Useless Info” section at the bottom of the page. However, it actually warrants further investigation and discussion.

In 1964, the St. Louis Cardinals entered their Fourth of July game in Cincinnati with a 38-39 record. The Cards lost 3-2 to the Reds, which dropped the club 10 games back in the National League standings behind the Philadelphia Phillies. But, in one of the biggest collapses in baseball history, the Phillies squandered their huge lead, and the Cardinals won the NL Pennant on the final day of the season. St. Louis then went on to beat the New York Yankees in seven games in the World Series.

According to Joe Sheehan (and repeated on Twitter by Jason La Canfora), the ’64 Cardinals were last MLB team to win the World Series after entering July 4 with a sub-.500 record. Simply, good teams have generally proven themselves by Independence Day. But if it happened before, it can happen again.

Entering July 4, 2017, there were 17 teams with a winning percentage below .500:

National League

  • Atlanta Braves (40-41)
  • Louis Cardinals (40-42)
  • New York Mets (38-44)
  • Pittsburgh Pirates (37-46)
  • Miami Marlins (36-45)
  • Cincinnati Reds (35-47)
  • San Diego Padres (34-48)
  • San Francisco Giants (33-51)
  • Philadelphia Phillies (28-53)

American League

  • Los Angeles Angels (43-44)
  • Baltimore Orioles (40-42)
  • Seattle Mariners (41-43)
  • Texas Rangers (40-43)
  • Toronto Blue Jays (37-45)
  • Chicago White Sox (37-45)
  • Detroit Tigers (36-45)
  • Oakland Athletics (35-48)

Could one of those teams turn their season around well enough to win the World Series? On one hand, it’s easier today to make it to the postseason because of the addition of division play and the invention of the Wild Card. On the other, expansion means more teams to get through on the way to the Fall Classic, making it more difficult to win a World Championship.

Given those observations, the criteria isn’t much different today than it was in 1964. A team can’t be far below .500 on July 4 and expect to have a realistic shot at a title in October. Therefore, we should eliminate every team more than three games below .500, leaving us with the Braves and Cardinals in the NL and the Angels, Orioles, Mariners and Rangers in the AL.

A quick glance at the standings shows us the Braves are eight games back in the NL East and six games back in the Wild Card. Even with Freddie Freeman back in the lineup (a July 4 miracle), it’s unlikely the rebuilding Braves can make a series run at the postseason. But the rest of the teams have a legitimate shot.

The Cardinals play in a weak NL Central, and entered Independence Day 3.5 games out of first place. The American League clubs were all within 2.5 games of the second AL Wild Card spot thanks to a highly competitive first half. But which has the best chance?

Looking at run differential, which helps us infer how well as team has played regardless of overall wins and losses, the Rangers (plus-20) and Cardinals (plus-10) are the only teams in the black. St. Louis is particularly intriguing given the number of runs allowed (365), which was the fourth best number in the NL entering play Tuesday – which tells us the Cardinals have a better combination of pitching and defense than Texas (397 runs allowed, 11th in the AL).

Starting pitching has been particularly strong in St. Louis, which is a good sign. Carlos Martinez has a 3.15 ERA in 17 starts, and surprising Mike Leake has posted a 2.97 ERA in 16 starts. Martinez will represent the Cardinals in the All-Star Game, and Leake is worthy. The only St. Louis starter will a lower than expected ERA is Adam Wainwright, the 35-year-old former ace, who has a 5.48 ERA in 17 starts, but a 3.86 FIP that shows he’s been better than that rough mark would indicate, and could bounce back in the second half.

Offensively, several players have underperformed, including Matt Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and offseason free agent signee Dexter Fowler. An average career performance from all four would be a huge boost in a playoff race.

It’s a rough process, and we haven’t discussed injuries, trade deadline deals or top prospects capable of making a late-season impact, but if you’re looking for a team capable of overcoming a sub-.500 record on July 4 to win the World Series, start with the Cardinals – the last franchise to do it.

Three things we learned this week

1. MLB fans made great All-Star roster selections

With the Midsummer Classic right around the corner, the AL and NL All-Star teams were announced over the weekend. As is the custom, fan voting decided the starters. Though the practice has a tendency to reward popular players over the best players – remember when Cal Ripken, Jr. and Derek Jeter were voted as All-Star starters way past their prime? – the fans did a solid job in 2017.

In the American League, Justin Smoak, Jose Ramirez and Corey Dickerson were selected to start for the first time, and though none are exactly household names, all three deserve it. The same can be said for Zack Cozart, Charlie Blackmon and Marcell Ozuna (who will fittingly start at Marlins Park) in the National League.

Sure, a case could be made for one or two others, but there’s not an underserving player listed among the starters. Well done, everyone.

2. The international free agency period has started

Looking at the All-Star rosters, 14 of the 62 initial selections were signed as international free agents. Many of baseball’s top players enter the professional ranks after teams and scouts discover their talents far away from their future homes, and July 2 is the annually “signing day” for the best 16-year-olds on the planet.

Among the top signees this year are shortstop Wander Samuel Franco, catcher Daniel Flores and shortstop Jelfry Marte, all of whom signed for more than $3 million last week. Franco, the No. 1 player on MLB.com’s Top 30 list of international prospects, chose to sign with the Rays out of the Dominican Republic. The Red Sox signed Flores out of Venezuela (the home country of Royals All-Star backstop Salvador Perez, as luck would have it), and Marte chose the Twins out of the Dominic Republic, like All-Star third baseman Miguel Sano did back in 2009.

Unfortunately, Sano had to wait until well after July 2 to put his pen to paper, and likewise some other top international free agents are still on the market. MLB’s No.6 six and No. 8 international prospects, outfielder Raimfer Salina and Antonio Salinas, both from Venezuela, are still unsigned, as is No. 11 Ronny Rojas, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic.

3. Andrew McCutchen is in All-Star form

Despite five previous selections, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen wasn’t among those picked for the NL All-Star team this year. However, after a disappointing 2016 campaign and a slow start in 2017, McCutchen has hit like an All-Star in recent weeks.

In his first 45 games through May 23, McCutchen hit .200/.271/.359 with six home runs and 20 RBI. Given his lack of production, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle dropped the centerfielder out of the No. 3 spot in the lineup. The 30-year-old looked nothing like the player that finished in the top five of the NL MVP voting every year from 2012-15 and won the award in 2013.

After his name was a regular in trade speculation throughout the winter and spring, it appeared a change of scenery might be McCutchen’s best shot at turning it around. However, after the way he swung the bat since late May, fans in Pittsburgh might be begging for McCutchen to stay.

Over his last 36 games hitting primarily sixth in the lineup, McCutcen has hit .408/.503/.736 with 10 homers and 29 RBI. He’s also scored 30 runs, na dhit nine doubles and a triple. On June 27, Hurdle put McCutchen back in the third spot, and he’s hit a blistering .522/.633/.957 with two long balls in the seven games he’s played since.

Quotable

“Gary shouldn’t be there. Gary’s a great player, but he shouldn’t be in the Home Run Derby. I remember when I had 14 home runs. That was a month and a half ago.”

Rays slugger Logan Morrison, who was not invited to participate at the Home Run Derby, on Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, according to Marc Topin of the Tampa Bay Times.

Baseball players don’t usually take shots at one another in the press, but Rays first baseman Logan Morrison had a few choice words after the decision not to invite him to the Home Run Derby, and targeted Gary Sanchez, who did get an invite, as a result.

Morrison ranks third in the majors with 24 home runs, behind only Aaron Judge (28), and George Springer (25). The total is already a career high for the eight-year MLB veteran, which Morrison set in just 80 games. Sanchez, who missed nearly a month of the season due to injury, has 13 homers – fewer than 72 other players – in 53 games.

How did Sanchez respond?

“It’s not my fault he didn’t get selected,” Sanchez said through an interpreter, according to ESPN News Services. “What can I say? They gave me a call, gave me an invitation to participate.”

Play of the Week

The players aren’t the only ones making great plays these days. How about this fan in Oakland snagging foul balls on back-to-back pitches?

Random MLB Power Rankings: Most underrated players in baseball

(Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs)

  1. Alex Wood, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers (2.8)
  2. Logan Morrison, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays (2.9)
  3. Jimmy Nelson, SP, Milwaukee Brewers (2.8)
  4. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Los Angeles Angels (2.7)
  5. Travis Shaw, 3B, Milwaukee Brewers (2.5)
  6. Aaron Hicks, OF, New York Yankees (2.7)
  7. Steven Souza, Jr., OF, Tampa Bay Rays (2.5)
  8. Chase Anderson, SP, Milwaukee Brewers (2.3)
  9. Jeff Samardzija, SP, San Francisco Giants (2.3)
  10. Joe Kelly, RP, Boston Red Sox (0.6)

With All-Star rosters out, we took a look at some of the most underappreciated players across the big leagues. Some were snubbed from the All-Star selections, others simply fly under the radar.

Nine of the 10 players on our list have been worth at least two wins to his team so far this season. Keep in mind that through July 4, only 80 players in the majors have recorded a 2.0 fWAR, and there are 62 initial spots on All-Star teams (more will be added because of injury and various other reasons). One of the players on our list, Logan Morrison, is part of the Final Vote and can still make it.

The only with a sub-2.0 fWAR is Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly, who has been one of the best in baseball over the past two months, and hasn’t allowed a runner to score since April 30 – a period of 23 appearances.

Because of the rules surrounding the selection of the All-Star rosters, including the rule that each team has to be represented at least once, deserving players are always left off. It’s the nature of the beast. But each of the 10 players listed above has played well enough to earn a trip to Miami.

League Leaders

An oldie but a goodie in the world of advanced baseball analytics, on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) offers a snapshot of a hitter’s production at the plate. It should come as no surprise each of the top five players in OPS are All-Stars.

OPS

  • Aaron Judge, New York Yankees (1.135)
  • Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds (1.039)
  • Bryce Harper, Washington Harper (1.031)
  • Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks (1.022)
  • Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals (.982)

As for pitchers, we take a look at Left on Base Percentage (LOB%), which tells us which pitchers have done the best job stranding base runners. The league average is roughly 70 percent.

It’s important to note that LOB% is generally considered a luck metric. A high LOB% could indicate that a pitcher has been fortunate not to cluster hits together, thus limiting the amount of damage done on the scoreboard (and his ERA).

However, similar to BABIP, it’s not all luck, and high LOB% pitchers may just be better pitchers overall (perhaps with great strikeout numbers, which keeps runners in place), which allows them to work out of jams.

LOB% (minimum 30 innings pitched)

  • Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks (97.3%)
  • Steven Matz, New York Mets (96.4%)
  • Pedro Baez, Los Angeles Dodgers (95.4%)
  • Corey Knebel, Milwaukee Brewers (94.7%)
  • Nick Goody, Cleveland Indians (93.%)

Only Corey Knebel has been able to parlay a high LOB% into a spot on an All-Star roster, but there should be a little bit of concern among Brewers fans that Knebel won’t be as effective in the second half of the season his “luck” begins to even out somewhat.

Useless Info

After Yuli Gurriel hit his 10th home run of the season July 2, he became the eighth member of the Houston Astros to reach double digits. No wonder the Astros have the best record in baseball and the largest MLB division lead.

Rookie Clint Frazier made his major league debut July 1, and became the first Yankee to hit a home run and double in his first game in more than a century.

Andrew McCutchen posted a 1.193 OPS in June, which as announce Joe Block pointed out, ranks 11th in Pirates franchise history for one month.

After hitting two home runs July 2 against the Tigers, Cleveland’s switch-hitting All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez became the first player in franchise to homer from both sides of the plate twice in the same season. He did it in less than a month, having turned the trick June 17 as well.

Big leaguers hit a combined for 1,101 home runs during the month of June, a new MLB record, according to Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information.

The Dodgers hit 50 home runs in the month of June, a new franchise record.

As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs pointed out, rookie All-Star Aaron Judge reached 5.0 fWAR before any other major leaguer reached 4.0.





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